WASHINGTON — Battered by the downturn, America's suburbs are bearing the brunt of poverty among those of working age that has climbed to its highest level in almost a half century, creating strains on dwindling safety-net programs focusing mostly on the inner-city poor.
A pair of analyses by the nonprofit Brookings Institution paint a bleak economic picture for the 100 largest metropolitan areas over the past decade and in the coming years, when the U.S. poverty rate is projected to edge toward 15 percent.
They also come weeks before the Nov. 2 congressional elections in which voters anxious over the slumping economy will decide whether to keep Democrats in power. Made up of both cities and surrounding suburbs, the large metro areas represent two-thirds of the U.S. population and are home to key battlegrounds that helped lift Democrat Barack Obama to victory in 2008.
The analyses of census data released Thursday show that since 2000, the number of poor people in the suburbs jumped by 37.4 percent to 13.7 million. That's faster than the national growth rate of 26.5 percent and more than double the city rate of 16.7 percent.
After the recession began in 2007, the suburbs continued to post larger increases in the number of poor — adding 1.8 million, compared to 1.4 million in the cities. Suburbs are now home to roughly one-third of the nation's poor.
At the same time, social service providers are spread thin in many suburban areas, according to a detailed Brookings survey of groups in representative metropolitan areas of Chicago, Los Angeles and the District of Columbia. That has forced providers to turn away many poor people due to increasingly scarce government and private-sector aid that is typically given to cities first.
"Millions of Americans at all income levels moved to the suburbs looking for better schools, better jobs, affordable housing, and a sense of security, but in recent years, as incomes have fallen, people had a harder and harder time making ends meet," said Scott Allard, a University of Chicago professor who co-wrote one of the reports.
"As a result, Americans who never imagined becoming poor are now asking for assistance, and many are not getting the help they need," he said.
Cities still have higher poverty rates — about 19.5 percent, compared to 10.4 percent in the suburbs. But the gap has been steadily narrowing. In a reversal from 2000, the number of poor people living in the suburbs now exceeds those in cities by roughly 1.6 million.
Analysts attribute the shift largely to years of middle-class flight and substantial shares of minorities and immigrants leaving cities in the early part of the decade for affordable housing and job opportunities in the suburbs. After the housing bust, their fortunes changed, throwing millions of people out of work.
More than half, or 57, of the 100 largest U.S. metro areas had substantial increases in poverty. They were most evident in Sun Belt suburban areas including Modesto and Riverside, both in California, as well as Lakeland, Fla.; Orlando; Miami and Tampa, which had seen large population gains during the housing boom.
Also hit hard were Rust Belt manufacturing regions such as Detroit, Cleveland and Allentown, Pa., where the poverty rate soared from 19 percent to 29 percent.
Nationally, the government reported last month that 14.3 percent of people in the U.S., or 1 in 7, now live below the poverty line, which is $21,954 for a family of four. Among the working-age population, poverty is at 12.9 percent, the highest since the 1960s, when the government launched a national war on poverty.
Based on unemployment rates that remain near 10 percent, many analysts predict increases in the U.S. poverty rate for at least two more years, with the suburbs continuing to post large gains.
—Poor people's requests to nonprofit groups for help buying food, paying bills and making housing payments generally jumped 30 percent between 2008 and 2009. About 3 out of 4 nonprofit groups reported increases in requests from people who had never sought help before.
—Almost half of the nonprofit groups serving the suburban poor reported they had lost substantial government or private-sector aid in the last year. Many of them were expecting additional cuts in 2011.
—Suburban nonprofit groups were often spread across multiple counties, cities or townships. That made it difficult to coordinate services across sprawling areas or obtain funding, compared to cities where poverty was more concentrated.
—Private philanthropic support for nonprofit social service groups more often targeted the poor in cities rather than suburbs, due partly to a belief that cities had the most poor and needed more help.
Elizabeth Kneebone, a senior research associate at Brookings, said the numbers highlighted a need for local governments to develop regional approaches to tackling poverty that encompass both city and suburb.
While suburban poverty is a growing problem, Kneebone noted that city poverty also rose significantly in the last year as the downturn began to spread from construction and manufacturing to other sectors of the economy. She said future poverty increases will be partly determined by the pace of economic recovery as well as government policy decisions promoting job growth, affordable housing and transportation.
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